PLANT CITY — On June 5, 2004, a convoy of trucks came under attack outside Baghdad International Airport.
Among those killed was Chris Neidrich, 23, of Palm Harbor. The former naval officer worked for Critical Intervention Services, a Clearwater security company.
Neidrich's family needed a pastor.
Michael Middlebrooks, a security executive for TECO Energy who was studying for the ministry, stepped forward. Mr. Middlebrooks often stopped by Critical Intervention Services, which handles security for TECO's power plants. Though he did not know Neidrich and was not yet ordained, Mr. Middlebrooks conducted the funeral service, his first service as a pastor.
He would be ordained as a Baptist minister in 2005, and go on to lead three other churches through transitions before settling in as the pastor of Springhead Baptist Church in Plant City.
Mr. Middlebrooks, who continued to work full time at TECO while counseling its employees for free or visiting them in hospitals, died April 12 in North Carolina of congestive heart failure. He was 48.
A third-generation Plant City native from an agricultural family, Mr. Middlebrooks walked on the wild side as a teenager — sort of. He hid the church candelabra. He toilet-papered yards.
"About half my dates fell through because he was on restriction," said his wife, Tanya Middlebrooks, 48. They met in the Plant City High School band. She remembers him as "a chubby redneck" with a personality as loud as his trumpet.
After high school, he got a job reading meters at TECO. About 10 years ago he began studying for the ministry through the Southern Baptist Convention. Mr. Middlebrooks worked both careers simultaneously, seeking out the sick and taking calls in the middle of the night.
He also ate fried-chicken breakfasts and struggled with weight.
The couple traveled to Havelock, N.C., two weeks ago to visit their daughter, Nikki, who was due to give birth in seven weeks. They learned en route that the baby had been born prematurely.
Braden Clink weighed 4 pounds, 5 ounces. Mr. Middlebrooks couldn't hold him but got to touch the incubator. The next afternoon he came down with what the family thought was pneumonia.
Doctors in New Bern, N.C., discovered a weakening heart not strong enough to survive bypass surgery. Mr. Middlebrooks died at 12:20 a.m. Easter Sunday.
At a viewing Thursday, well-wishers stretched one block outside Hopewell Funeral Home, which estimated a crowd of nearly 1,200. The two-hour event stretched to five.
Funeral home employees took guest books outside to visitors, some of whom had waited in line for 21/2 hours, offering them a chance to sign the books and go home.
Most insisted on staying.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]